It is increasingly common to hear of crises – economic, environmental and/or racial – in which the vast majority of the global population are confined to substandard living conditions while a global elite accrues wealth at a horrifying pace. There is a widespread sense that something has to give, that the world cannot continue on its current path. Of course, this is often the cry emanating from movements on the streets and detailed in the pages of Intergovernmental Panels on Climate Change (IPCC) reports but these often fall on the deaf ears of those in power. So what exactly has to change and how do we untangle this big, hot mess?
To understand where we are and to figure out a strategy for radical change, we need to recognise that capitalism as an economic system depends on several non-capitalist systems of social and natural reproduction. Most fundamentally, and perhaps most timely, is nature and the planet. Then the family, education and health, the polity and political order and the possibility of plunder from populations outside the system.
The term ‘polycrisis’ that is now bandied about in the seminar rooms of Davos implies that each of these crises, afflicting a variety of these systems, are separate from another – as if it were just bad luck that they were occurring at the same time. We must understand that this is a fallacy and capitalism is the crisis. As Farwa Sial recently wrote for the Developing Economics blog, ‘Pandemics, climate breakdown, wars and global deflationary pressures are not mere externalities of the capitalist system but intrinsic to its operations – long predicted by a diverse group of thinkers.’
Widening our lens
There is an overwhelming tendency to identify the core injustice of capitalist society with the exploitation of waged workers at the point of commodity production. The recent wave of strike action in the UK is a timely reminder of this and, of course, the history of capitalism cannot be told without the history of the waged worker. But capitalism’s exploitative reach extends far beyond the worker and ‘the economy’ and to truly envision a world beyond capitalism, we must first understand those wider spheres upon which it feeds.
First, and as a multitude of feminist economists have noted over decades, is care work. ‘Who cooked Adam Smith’s dinner?’ as the adage goes. Capitalism relies on the unpaid labour of predominantly women to nurture, sustain, replenish and create the workers of tomorrow. Modern forms of ‘lean-in’ feminism have encouraged women to buy into the capitalist illusion, casting off their motherly chains and passing them down the social hierarchy. But this does nothing about the devaluing of care work and merely relocates exploitation further down the income distribution.
Capitalism is no mere economy, but something larger: an institutionalised social order that includes the non-economised zones on which the economy relies
A second precondition for a capitalist economy is ecology. Capital relies on nature in a very literal sense for the raw materials necessary for production and environmental conditions conducive to habitable life. Yet decades of ‘externalising’ so-called ecological assets has brought the climate to the brink of breakdown with huge inequalities along the lines of class and race in terms of who is most vulnerable.
None of this accumulation can proceed without legal systems to guarantee private property and contractual exchange, nor repressive forces to manage dissent and enforce the hierarchies that enable corporations to expropriate populations at home and abroad.
This brings us to the next precondition: state power (or its absence). Think of the legal frameworks that allow multinational corporations to sequester billions in offshore accounts. These intricate legal frameworks are not acts of nature but concoctions of the state.
Capital needs the power of the state but its actions also undermine state capacity. The result is a set of tensions between the ‘economic’ and ‘political’ and a deep-seated tendency towards political crisis. On one hand these are crises of governance, in which the system destroys its own capacity to manage the problems it generates. On the other, they are crises of hegemony, in which people become disillusioned with flagrant inequality and a political system that enables it.
Finally, any analysis of capitalism must look at how these conditions intersect with questions of place and race. Capitalist production would not be profitable without an ongoing stream of cheap inputs, including natural resources and unfree or dependent labour. The statement ‘Behind Manchester stood Mississippi’ illustrates the fact that the wealth from the iconic textile mills of early industrialisation depended on the cheap raw cotton supplied by slave labour in the US.
The same is true today. Behind Cupertino stands Kinshasa, where lithium for batteries and coltan for iPhones are mined on the cheap, at the expense of black lives. In truth, capitalist society is necessarily imperialist, continuously creating defenceless populations for expropriation. Its economy would not work if everyone was paid wages that cover their true reproduction costs. By institutionalising that division, capitalism entrenches imperialism and racial oppression.
In sum, each condition is indispensable for a capitalist economy’s functioning. Behind capitalism’s official institutions – wage labour, production, exchange and finance – stand their necessary supports and enabling conditions: families, communities, nature; territorial states, political institutions and civil societies; and not least, massive amounts and multiple forms of unwaged and expropriated labour. Fundamentally integral to capitalist society, they too are constitutive elements of it. Capitalism, in other words, is no mere economy, but something larger: an institutionalised social order that includes the non-economised zones on which the economy relies.
The hunger of capital
The concept of ‘cannibal capitalism’ allows us to scrutinise something crucial – the relation established in capitalist society between the system’s economy and these background conditions. Capitalism in essence is a cannibal, primed to guzzle its own conditions of possibility. This is obvious to anyone who adopts a wider view of the systems capital implicates (nature, care work, labour) but is conveniently sidelined by those who fixate on economic growth through the lens of GDP.
Looking across the history of capitalism (mercantile, liberal-colonial, state-organised), this structural distinction between production and social reproduction has always been a defining feature. Regardless of the form, as long as the system incentivises limitless accumulation, it is bound to put tremendous destabilising pressure on families, nature, subjugated populations and on the public powers that are supposed to be regulating it.
Today’s financialised capitalism, though, leads us to a more problematic question. Can the beast feed itself? The increasing prominence of FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) industries that invest in themselves at the expense of the wider economy poses important questions for cannibal capitalism. In the UK, for instance, only £1 in every £10 lent by British banks goes to non-financial firms. Most credit flows into existing property and supports some kind of financial trading.
The rise (and fall?) of cryptocurrency has highlighted how certain financial assets have become completely detached from any true sense of value creation. Many crypto trading platforms are notoriously defined by ‘pump and dump’ schemes that see investors plot runs on certain currencies – quickly inflating their value – before selling them off for a profit.
So can the rich now feed themselves – detached from the preconditions of previous capitalist eras? The evidence would suggest not. Cryptocurrencies are extremely harmful for the environment, with Bitcoin mining resulting in more carbon emissions than some countries. Financial capitalism has also brought us austerity alongside a much wider assault on the institutions of social reproduction – the social safety net, childcare, education and housing.
The nature of the crisis
We have seen severe forms of economic crisis, as in 2007-8. And although it may have looked as if our rulers found a way to patch it up, that crisis is not really solved. Financialisation remains a ticking time bomb. And our economic woes have converged with another very severe, even catastrophic, crisis in the form of global warming. This ecological crisis has been brewing for a long time and is now becoming palpable.
If we are serious about saving democracy, care and the planet we need to address the root of the crisis, which is capital’s insatiable need to devour them
The crisis of social reproduction is stressing our capacities for creating, caring for and sustaining human beings: childcare, eldercare, education and healthcare. As states disinvest from public provision, and depressed wage levels force us to devote more hours to paid work, the system gobbles up the time and energy needed for care work. So that sector too is in crisis, especially in pandemic conditions.
One could say that Covid has greatly exacerbated the pre-existing crisis of social reproduction. But it would be just as true to say that the pre-existing crisis of social reproduction (including disinvestment from public health and social provision) has greatly exacerbated the effects of Covid.
Finally, we also face a major political crisis. At one level, this is a crisis of governance, so that even powerful states lack the capacity to solve the problems the system generates. They are depleted, gridlocked and outgunned by mega-corporations, which have captured virtually all regulatory agencies and engineered huge tax cuts for themselves and the rich.
Deprived of revenue for decades, states have allowed their infrastructures to crumble and have depleted their stockpiles of essential public goods. They are, by definition, unable to deal with issues like climate change, which are not containable within any jurisdictional borders. The upshot is an acute crisis of governance at the structural level.
But there is also a political crisis at another level, a crisis of hegemony in the Gramscian sense: the widespread defection from ‘politics as usual’, from the established political parties and elites who have been tarnished by association with neoliberalism, and the appearance of previously unthinkable populisms.
This multiplicity of crises adds up to a general crisis of capitalist society, the effects of which manifest like a metastasising cancer. Every effort to patch up one outbreak only leads to others, afflicting other sectors, regions, populations, until the whole social body is overwhelmed.
The experience of general crisis has become palpable for many, but that doesn’t mean that it will produce a total breakdown or revolutionary climax any time soon. Capitalist crises can go on for decades, unfortunately. One could say that the whole first half of the 20th century was just one long, rolling general crisis of liberal-colonial capitalism. We might be in for a long slog.
This analysis offers some insights for the political strategy we need to ensure this slog has direction and reaches its goal. The first, and most important, is that we need to think big. This crisis can’t be resolved in an emancipatory way by small-bore reforms that merely tinker at the edges of the system. If we are serious about saving democracy, care and the planet, we need to address the root cause, which is capital’s insatiable need to devour them. We need, in other words, to dismantle a social system that empowers the cannibal to treat us as fodder.
To do that, however, we need to scale up the current level of emancipatory engagement. Certainly, there’s lots of activist energy now but it’s fragmented and uncoordinated. It hasn’t (yet) coalesced into a broad anti-capitalist front with the vision and heft to embody a genuine alternative. It’s not (yet) a counter-hegemonic bloc that could go toe to toe against the powers-that-be – against corporate neoliberalism, on the one hand, and reactionary populism, on the other. And that’s what the times demand.
How might we get to that place? There’s no magic bullet but it would surely help if we had a map of the system that connected the dots: a picture that revealed some links among apparently disconnected sufferings and struggles – showing, for example, that racist police violence, lethal floods, unsafe housing, forced childbearing, imperial wars and unliveable wages all have roots in one and the same social system, which must be abolished to end them.
Cannibal capitalism, as outlined here, is a rough draft of such a picture. It offers activists a map on which to situate themselves – and to grasp the relations to others, identifying potential allies and actual enemies. Like intersectionality, it invites us to overcome silos in favour of integrative thinking and political action. But it goes deeper in clarifying the structural dynamics that are reducing all of us, albeit in different ways, to food for the beast. It can help inspire us to join together in a powerful anti-capitalist coalition.